Thursday, December 20, 2018

the Ice age

“I call it the lost generation, because from 2000 to 2017, nothing really defines that whole generation in pop culture. Like, how would you look back at 2000 to 2017 and remember anything? How would you see somebody wearing some gear and say, ‘Hey, that’s gotta be from 2014?’ There’s no music there, there’s no pop culture, there’s no fashion that defines the generation. I look at the Nineties like it’s the last truly great decade." -  Vanilla Ice

That's like a vernacular version of the Gospel according to K-Punk and Simonretromania being ventriloquized through Vanilla Ice's mouth there!

Ice is quoted in this piece by Rob Sheffield for Rolling Stone about Nineties revivalism, the Nineties nostalgia circuit that Ice and others are doing very nice business on, and decade-consciousness.

Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray also quoted on the Nineties:

“It was the last heyday of the music business. When you were a kid in your garage, you could pick up a guitar and dream of being part of that. I compare it to these young kids playing basketball, wanting to be in the NBA – then all of a sudden the NBA disappears, and the NFL disappears. Now people are still playing basketball, but it’s the local rec league; people are still playing football, but you gotta go find some guys and get some games together. The infrastructure of stardom is gone. So you look back on that – not just as a business, but romantically. ‘Boy, that was fun, going to Tower Records to see what’s new, watching MTV for a world premiere.'”

Sheffield lays on McGrath this idea of Nineties as the last proper Decade with a sense of itself c.f. first two decades of the 21st Century being Zeigeist-ly amorphous:
 “Right – what would you call it, the Noughties? The 2000s? No one knows what to call it. No one knows when it started or ended. It took a while for the stink of the Nineties to go away, because nothing replaced it. The industry imploded, so there weren’t new bands coming up. Name the last rock star. The top ten touring bands in Pollstar – it was still the Chili Peppers, it was still Soundgarden – God rest his soul, Chris Cornell – it was still the Dave Matthews Band. Nothing replaced the Nineties, even though the decade was over.”
This doesn't seem true to me, seems a bit of a self-serving fiction - there are plenty of definitively 21st Century pop stars, some of whom have taken on and taken over the old functions of rockstardom (excess, outrage, political statements, being taken seriously / taking themselves very seriously) ....  indeed Rockism is alive and well in pop itself, ironically (and boringly)... rock anthems of the 21st Century is a shrinking category, true... guitars are rarely heard in the Top 40, for sure....

As for the no-feel-to-2000s/2010s ... I guess we'll have to wait a bit longer to see if early-Noughties nostalgia kicks in. Won't be long now, if the 'stalgia is already settling in on the late Nineties, eve of Y2K moment.

YeahI wouldn't be surprised if a certain look (to clothes, hair) and feel 'n' finish to entertainment products will start to become apparent as we move into the future - something we couldn't put our finger on at the time, what with the welter of revivalism and pastiche

the clunkiness of an era becomes its charm

(although films and TV of the late Eighties and early Nineties often look really shit)

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

retro, you know the scores (running with the Pakula)

Watching Homecoming - an addictive new podcast-sourced show - I really enjoyed the Pakula / 1970s paranoid thriller vibe to the camera work: the aerial, hovering, Panopticon / surveillance-vibe shots,  the decor and locations (sterile office interiors of huge looming scale, with that cold strip-lighting look - cf. newsrooms of All the President's Men),  the new-built buildings and soul-less exurban perimeter zones.

There even seemed to be a deliberately Pakula-esque vibe to the music, with certain motifs redolent of the eerie-voice refrains in Klute.

Well it turns out that was even more the case than I thought.

Via Bruce Levenstein, this piece explains how director Sam Esmail deliberately repurposed underscores and motifs from 1970s thrillers (and some later films in a similar vein), despite the enormous cost of doing so.

After learning that, with the later episodes I've spotted a recycled swathe of ruminative, melancholy jazz used in The Conversation (that bit at the end when the Gene Hackman character is thoroughly defeated, hoist by his own surveillance-expert petard etc) and an imposing, stately fanfare (evocative of power and its untouchability) that I'm pretty certain is from All the Presidents's Men or The Parallax View.

But the rest have been more elusive, vaguely redolent of Carpenter or Michael Small but hard to pin to specific.

Ah, stop press - also via Bruce Levenstein - a piece at Indiewire that gives  a detailed breakdown of what soundtrack motifs were recycled in Homecoming - turns out I'm right about The Conversation, Klute and All the President's Men. Lots of good-taste choices, including The Andromeda Strain OST by Gil Melle


Friday, November 2, 2018

haunted haystacks and ghosts in the garden

Anybody seen this? Any cop?

At Pop Matters, John A. Riley writes:

"Arcadia compiles footage from the British Film Institute's sprawling national archive to create an impressionistic collage film about rural Britain...

"... Paul Wright's film is primed to be received in the context of two related phenomena: Hauntology and Folk Horror. Both represent new ways of thinking about our relationship to time and place, and of finding the sinister within the everyday, the former by emphasizing repressed pasts and failed futures, the latter by emphasizing sinister textures and themes lurking below the surface of Britain's rural communities. However, it may be equally if not more helpful to think of Arcadia as a sculpture done in paracinema: countless hours of public service announcements, promotional and instructional videos, and amateur-shot footage, are here given an unruly second lease of life....

"...  a dizzying assemblage of bucolic, folkloric footage; maypole dancing and sundry village festivities that wouldn't look out of place in The Wicker Man, harvesting crops, hunting, bucolic landscapes. Occasionally footage from a well-known narrative film, such as an unmistakable glimpse of Helen Mirren from Herostratus, is thrown into the mix.... 

".... The film doesn't present the archive footage chronologically, which means that a variety of formats, from badly damaged silent-era film to pristine 35mm, to home formats such as VHS and Super 8, all brush up against each other to dizzying, sometimes foreboding effect. The film works by associating, linking things in a montage chain that, in one example, goes from the pageantry of traditional village celebrations such as Morris dancing and 'Obby 'Oss festivals, to the '60s counterculture, exemplified by a patronizingly interviewed hippy who says he celebrates love "by doing psychedelic freakouts every now and again" to more recent times, through images of the kind of barnyard raves beloved by the '80s/'90s rave generation, as the soundtrack works itself up into a relentless pulse.... 

" Arcadia is a frequently fascinating, often unsettling look at traditions and places that can often feel like they are vanishing before our eyes."

Feel both allured and also faintly fatigued by the prospect - like this really should be the absolute last word on terrain that is well ploughed by this point... 
- perhaps even whatever comes after the last word.... 

Riley also praises the score by Portishead's Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp's Will Gregory.... 

"The eclectic score, at times evoking Debussy, at other times sounding like '90s lounge music revival (not surprising given its composers), and at one point breaking out into an ominously-tinged '70s bovver rock stomp, is worthy of serious standalone consideration..."

Anything even slightly connected to the stench of Goldfrapp I'm a bit sceptical about....

Wednesday, October 31, 2018


postscript: Chuck Eddy chirps in with commentary about the nostalgia overload in pop, with folks simultaneously ransacking and remembrancing the Eighties, Nineties and the early 2000s

too much pop past innit

retro (on the) gaming

a piece by Dr Kate Lister on those prostitute micro-ads in phone boxes, which have now become part of urban history - collectibles

Thursday, October 18, 2018

La La Lame / Blah Blah Bland

I knew there were good reasons why I hated the movie, I just didn't know there were so many

From a Bright Lights Film Journal essay by Richard A. Voeltz, titled “The Joke’s on History”: Retro-Reality, Twee, and Mediated Nostalgia in La La Land (2016):

"La La Land is more of a composite remake; even better, an archive, where Chazelle cleverly uses a combination of parody, homage, and nostalgia to continue, remake, and reimagine nostalgic themes or franchises established in earlier times that places it in the epistemological category of the nostalgic remake as defined by Lizardi that blocks engagement with the past or present.... “La La Land ultimately feels bloated by its references, by the mad rush to imitate all Chazelle’s inspirations,” writes Christos Tsiolkas. 

"The movie opens with the old CinemaScope logo in a similar way that Quentin Tarantino pays homage to the movies that he is imitating. The shooting of the film in CinemaScope is important because “the technique represented a groundbreaking new widescreen process that revolutionized filmmaking in the 1950s,” which explains why aesthetically the film manages to look like a classic movie-musical even when it’s just panning across a modern-day traffic jam at the beginning of the film.25 This is a film that draws on classic musicals and films that most people would only know from watching TCM religiously: Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Top Hat (1935), Shall We Dance (1937), The Band Wagon (1953), Broadway Melody (1936), An American in Paris (1951), An Affair to Remember (1957), West Side Story (1961), Bogie Nights (1997), Funny Face (1957), Moulin Rouge (2001), and Sweet Charity (1969) among many others. Sara Preciado has, in fact, compiled a YouTube video comparing scenes from La La Land with ones from these famous musicals.26 Rebel Without a Cause (1955) also plays a significant role in the film. Even Annie Hall (1977), Pulp Fiction (1994), and 8 ½ (1963) make the list. But none resonate as much as Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and his lesser-known The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Demy’s Umbrellas provides not only inspiration for the plot, ending, along with the 1927 silent film 7th Heaven, and music of La La Land, but also for Chazelle’s use of vibrant colors of blue, red, green, and yellow in the cinematography."


"Sebastian drives a 1982 Buick Riviera convertible and listens to music on a tape deck. He plays vinyl jazz records at home. And the needle-scraping ending of such records figures prominently as a metaphor for his relationship with Mia winding down as well. Early in the movie, a dinner conversation between Mia’s then boyfriend Greg, his brother, and his wife deals with the subject of “nowadays theatres … they’re so dirty – and they’re either too hot or too cold – always people talking.” When Mia and Sebastian meet at the vintage Rialto* theatre in Pasadena, later shown as closed (Chazelle loved the old red velvet seats), to see Rebel Without a Cause, the celluloid film during the scene of the drive up to the Griffith Park Observatory melts in the projector. This is a retro-intertextual reminder of when the film burns in the middle of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966)"

Yeah it's just pure pastiche puke from start to finish... meta upon meta...  and these quotes are just a fraction of Voeltz's inventory of the ways in which La La sucks

But the other thing, though - the real failing is on a much more basic level. It harks back to a golden age of song and dance movies, but the dancing is not very good and the songs aren't much cop either.  If you're going to resurrect the lost golden age then you have to compete with Singin' in the Rain, High Society and West Side Story, on the toon and tap front... 

 * that Rialto Theatre  is just up the road from us in South Pas..  was where a crucial scene from The Player was filmed (so that layers even more retro-referentialism)...  was a ghost cinema for a long while...  has recently been refurbished, but not to show pictures: on Sundays it hosts the "hipster church" Mosaic

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

remembering the last days of collecting

Pitchfork's Jeremy D. Larson on the imminent rebooting of Winamp and feeling wistful about a lost pre-stream moment "when MP3 were collectibles, like bugs or baseball cards":

"I’m not saying that I miss Winamp, the popular ’90s shareware program that is being rebooted like “Will & Grace” and “The Connors” (née “Roseanne”). But what its revival makes me realize are the manifold ways in which I have let the actual connection to the definite article of music fall by the wayside. Somewhere between paying $10 a month for access to everything that’s happening in music right now and buying physical LPs to fill up the space in my heart evacuated by digital culture, there is the memory of the halcyon days of downloading MP3s, pirating music, ripping CDs onto my computer, making CD-Rs for my car, making CD-RWs for my friends. It was a liminal ownership of music. I miss that, that last moment where it felt like I had some fleeting connection with digital music."

I don't miss CD-Rs - horrid things, especially when in paper sleeves.

But yeah, streaming - it's hard to establish any attachment to music in those conditions, or even to remember what you've listened to already, what you want to go back to, etc. 

My compensation strategies include assembling monstrously large playlists on Spotify that in 19 out of 20 cases I never ever return to.  That's a form of quasi-collection - setting yourself a listening task, a genre or a single artist's whole oeuvre gathered in one spot, that would be absurdly daunting (day after day of continuous listening) if it were not INSTANTLY unappetising the moment you've completed the 22 album long playlist -  any originating impulse of curiosity or desire snuffed by the dismal drag-and-click process of pulling together its contents.

But I am actually still harvesting MP3s - valueless little clots of sound-data in themselves, but that still accrue some marginal trace of libidinal investment on account of the foraging effort expended, plus a faint after-image of libido-stirring obscurity (as with the MP3s I audio-strip off of YouTube and Vimeo - impossibly hard to find, or never ever released even in this age of releasing everything, like the soundtracks on obscure experimental films and animations, especially East European animations).

Thursday, August 9, 2018

the future is back in style

i guess the goggles and visors are meant to refer to VR helmets?

but getting also a pungent retro-fashion feel  - reminding me of Andre Courreges's Moon Girl Collection of 1964 - "white and silver man-made fabrics cut in geometric shapes... PVC boots, cosmonaut-style helmets, and goggles"

These below are not exactly the Courreges collection - or Courreges type look - i am thinking of but have approximately similar vibe

did he really keep this up until 1970? have a feeling this video is mis-dated

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

retro cameo

Me and Retromania make a cameo appearance in the comic book Cartoon Dialectics Vol. 3, by Tom Kaczynski!

The blurb for Cartoon Dialectics Vol. 3, which is published by Uncivilized Books:

"Three stories that explore the past, the present, the future, nostalgia and it's origins, and political fall-out. 'Skyway' is a modernist neo-noir set in a mythical Minneapolis. 'Trump & Nostalgia,' a collaboration with award winning Danish cartoonist, Clara Jetsmark, explores the connections between nostalgia, immigrantion, and the politics of our moment. How will we remember the presidential menace? 'Use Your Nostalgia' explores the utopian possibilities of nostalgia."

Get the comic book here.

Monday, July 9, 2018

if the Pogles are your bag (RIP Peter Firmin)

Not so long ago, hauntology scholar Richard J. Lockley-Hobson -  and doesn't that sound like the name a hauntology scholar ought to have? like one of those fictitious historians or independent researchers into the arcane and paranormal that Ghost Box quote on their releases! - not so long ago Richard produced a limited-edition run of adorable screen-printed tote-bags / cotton-shoppers in tribute to The Pogles, the magical 1960s children's stop-motion animation series created by Oliver Postgate and the late Peter Firmin (aka Smallfilms - as in The Clangers, Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine etc etc). The bags quickly ran out, but another batch is coming soon, interested parties take note. Details to follow, for now here's Richard's account of how they came to be.

The story goes that the original series The Pogles was felt by the BBC to be too witchy and eldritch and unsettling for the tender eyes of  under-fives, so was quickly pulled.

But it came back in slightly toned-down form as Pogle's Wood

I remember loving the Pogles as a wee nipper but I've no idea whether I saw the original series or Pogle's Wood -  I think the latter, though (the "wood" feels part of the memory)

How weird that these - my earliest televisual memories, pretty much (along with Andy Pandy and Bill & Ben and Weed) are up there, preserved, in the senselessly ever-expanding pubic archive that is YouTube.

Not that I have had time to rewatch them, for longer than a few minutes, of course. 

I could drown in memory, if I just had the time. 

wabi sabi levi

fetish for personalised fading of denim as "character"

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Hauntology Parish Newsletter - June 2018: Moon Wiring Club, Bloxham Tapes, A Year In the Country, Andrew Pekler's Phantom Islands

Celebrating the Summer Solstice tomorrow, here's a new Moon Wiring Club mix! 

Mr. Hodgson describes it as starting out as your "pretty standard hyper-soup of the usual 70s/80s audio synth nonsense with added vocal bitsy" that then veers into an unexpected "Industrial dance selection... everyone needs to have heard Soma Holiday at least once."

Mr. Hodgson also points out some related MWC action:

- a MWC interview that features in new "folk horror" book  Harvest Hymns. Volume II - Sweet Fruits

-  MWC track contributed to "3rd Wave" hauntology compilation, Present At The Terminal, on the  Modern Aviation label


Mr. Hodgson mentions in passing a new 3rd Wave hauntology entity possibly worth checking out -  Bloxham Tapes.  


A Year In the Country have a new themed album involving multiple contributors out next month, The Shildam Hall Tapes, which sounds excellently eerie on a first listen. 

Release rationale: 

 “Reflections on an imaginary film.” 

In the late 1960s a film crew began work on a well-funded feature film in a country mansion, having been granted permission by the young heir of the estate. 

Amidst rumours of aristocratic decadence, psychedelic use and even possibly dabbling in the occult, the film production collapsed, although it is said that a rough cut of it and the accompanying soundtrack were completed but they are thought to have been filed away and lost amongst storage vaults. 

Few of the cast or crew have spoken about events since and any reports from then seem to contradict one another and vary wildly in terms of what actually happened on the set. 

A large number of those involved, including a number of industry figures who at the time were considered to have bright futures, simply seemed to disappear or step aside from the film industry following the film's collapse, their careers seemingly derailed or cast adrift by their experiences. 

Little is known of the film's plot but several unedited sections of the film and its soundtrack have surfaced, found amongst old film stock sold as a job lot at auction - although how they came to be there is unknown. 

The fragments of footage and audio that have appeared seem to show a film which was attempting to interweave and reflect the heady cultural mix of the times; of experiments and explorations in new ways of living, a burgeoning counter culture, a growing interest in and reinterpretation of folk culture and music, early electronic music experimentation, high fashion, psychedelia and the crossing over of the worlds of the aristocracy with pop/counter culture and elements of the underworld. 

The Shildam Hall Tapes takes those fragments as its starting point and imagines what the completed soundtrack may have sounded like; creating a soundtrack for a film that never was. 

My memory is getting foggier as the years advance, but I think - I think - that I forgot to flag up this recent A Year in the Country release from just last month, Audio Albion

release rationale: 

Audio Albion is a music and field recording map of Britain, which focuses on rural and edgeland areas. 

Each track contains field recordings from locations throughout the land and is accompanied by notes on the recordings by the contributors. 

The tracks record the sounds found and heard when wandering down pathways, over fields, through marshes, alongside rivers, down into caves and caverns, climbing hills, along coastlands, through remote mountain forestland, amongst the signs of industry and infrastructure and its discarded debris. 

Intertwined with the literal recording of locations, the album explores the history, myths and beliefs of the places, their atmospheres and undercurrents, personal and cultural connections - the layered stories that lie amongst, alongside and beneath the earth, plants and wildlife. 

News from the parish's twinned town in West Germany - Andrew Pekler announces a new project entitled Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas . It is "an interactive online map that charts the sounds and histories of islands that were once found on nautical maps but have since disappeared."

Release rationale: 

"Phantom Islands are artifacts of the age of maritime discovery and colonial expansion. During centuries of ocean exploration these islands were sighted, charted, described and even landed on – but their existence was never ultimately verified. Poised between cartographic fact and maritime fiction, they haunted seafarers’ maps for hundreds of years, providing inspiration for legend, fantasy, and counterfactual histories. Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas interprets these imaginations in the form of a map of speculative sounds from 27 phantom islands around the world.

"Explore the map by clicking on the names of phantom islands to learn the histories of their discoveries and the dates of their cartographical existence. Zoom in on individual islands to hear their musical, biophonic and geophonic soundscapes. Or, engage Cruise mode to be taken on an audio tour of all the Phantom Islands – ideal for passive listening in a separate browser window or tab. (In this mode, all the sounds, played in sequence, amount to something like my new album.) Recommended browsers: Chrome (version 67+), Firefox (version 60+ ), Safari (version 11+). Not usable on mobile devices. 

"Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas was commissioned by Jeu de Paume for the exhibition Fourth Worlds: Imaginary Ethnography in Music and Sound and was produced with the support of DICRéAM, CNC. "

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

"like a wax museum with a pulse"

I should really have had a whole chapter on Quentin T in Retromania, shouldn't I?

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Hauntology Parish Newsletter April-May 2018: A Year in the Country book; Ghost Box new releases; Emotion Wave / Lo-Five; mediadropping; Starblood

The big news in the parish is the publication this week of A Year in The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields by Stephen Prince of A Year In The Country the blog and the label.

Sub-subtitled "Journeys in Otherly Pastoralism, the Further Reaches of Folk and the Parallel Worlds of Hauntology", it's an excellent compendium of Prince's musings and meditations on all things wyrdly bucolic, uncanny, and elegiac, spanning a spectral spectrum from Richard Mabey to Zardoz, Virginia Astley to Sapphire & Steel


With the possible exception of Mark F's Ghosts of My Life, it's the first tome fully dedicated to all things hauntological (as opposed to various volumes about "folk horror" or 70s kids teevee)

You can buy it here, and here - and if you must (although then again, it's effectively funding righteous scourge The Washington Post, so why not?) here (UK) and here (US)



In other parish goings-on, I have already mentioned the delightful debut album for Ghost Box from Portugal's Beautify Junkyards -  The Invisible World of... 

Fairly imminently there will be another fine album by The Advisory Circle - Ways of Seeing, out late May. 

Through his own imprint Cafe Kaput, Circle chief Jon Brooks also recently put out this album 

Neil Grant of Lo-Five - whose album When It's Time To Let Go for Patterned Air Recordings  pleasured me last year  - has set up a  collective of Liverpool-based experimental electronic musicians under the rubric Emotion Wave.  Here's Neil's project rationale .

Emotional Wave has some musical output  already under its collective belt and I believe there is a non-audio entity (printed matter) in the pipeline. And in a week or so Neil releases the Lo-Five miscellany Propagate - remixes, compilation tracks and one-off specials.

Neil also alerts me to his having put out a little while back some "super lo fi house tracks"  under the title My House Is Your House Volume One. Like Propagate,  it's a tide-you-over / palate cleanser type release before the follow-up to When It's Time To Let Go.

Love the graphic echo of Human League's "Being Boiled" single sleeve there.

(Neil informs me that this was actually unintended - he just got the figures from a Letraset pack! A nice eerie echo nonetheless)


A rather tardy mention of an intriguing my-back-pages project Meadow House by Daniel Wilson of Radionics Radio renown. It's really on the very edge of this parish, in so far as it's not particularly haunty, but the back story to Daniel's self-invented Dada-prankster practice of media-dropping - "theact of recording special homemade music and dropping it for random people tofind" -  is pretty interesting.  

The hypnagogia/memoradelia-tinged project Starblood has launched a series based around the concept of late-night TV sign-off themes.

Here's another of their tracks coming more from a dreampop / idyllitronic precinct than this particular parish but nice 'n' woozy nonetheless. 


Parish elders Boards of Canada were recently venerated here and here


Thursday, March 29, 2018

2012 interview

a 2012 interview with a fellow called Carl

1   1/  You note that on a personal level you find something slightly shameful and lame about retro. Perhaps such a reaction relates to your own obvious fascination and immersion in music. Do you believe that retro invokes the  same emotions in most listeners?

It comes from my own history as a listener – growing up during the postpunk era, when music was constantly changing and innovation was the generally held ideal, and then in the 90s being heavily involved in rave culture, when music was constantly changing and innovation was the generally held ideal.  So those eras  have created a benchmark for me of what I think pop culture should be. And not just those periods alone, but things like hip hop in the Eighties and much of the Nineties, things like Timbaland and the future-R&B revolution from the late 90s, and even in the last decade things like grime and  elements within dubstep – they have maintained my belief in innovation, futurism, a music scene that keeps moving and mutating.  That’s my big buzz.  But equally when I listen to music made before when I first got into it seriously circa 1978, the stuff I most admire is  Sixties psychedelia, Seventies Krautrock, dub reggae,  the arty end of glam like Roxy Music, electric jazz of the Miles Davis kind...   all about pushing the envelope, exploration, strange hybrids.

At the same time I obviously enjoy quite a bit of retro-oriented music that’s heavily inspired by the past and plays games with history. But I tend to believe deep-down that these are lesser pleasures. They’re not really taking us forward.

    2/ Is there much conscious recognition of the prevalence of retro, particularly among a younger generation for whom recycling of material is considered standard practice?

I think a lot of them think not only that this is normality, but that it has always been like this. People who disagree with the book have said “oh bands have always  recycled” . Or even “originality and innovation” are myths. The point of Retromania is to defamiliarise the musical present, to show that retro is not the norm historically, but it is an accumulating cultural syndrome that has built up over the decades until the current predicament. I’m sowing seeds of discontent and rekindling the hope that it doesn’t have to be this way.

3/ Is retro not an inevitable consequence of changes in the way music is listened to. Instead of music that belongs primarily  to a specific teenage generation and which is then jettisoned it now remains endlessly  available within popular culture?

There’s nothing wrong with listening to old music, or even being influenced by it, but I think it is more productive to use the past as a springboard to go somewhere new. Too much of the current music scene is either adding to an established tradition without extending it in any significant way (Adelle) or it is involved in pastiche and citation and referentiality (most hipster music today).

 4/ Is there a finite number of  ways to express the same emotions,  create a  functional building or write a script. Even Shakespeare borrowed his plots after all. Is it possible that there is very little innovative material left to discover?

Well it is true that a lot of experimental avant-garde music – and art and literature and film – heads into a zone which is abstract and anti-emotional. If you have expressive needs, stuff you wish to vent emotionally, you might well be drawn to established modes of songwriting that do that job very well. The equivalent of certain kinds of narrative structure in novels or Hollywood movies.  The challenge for pop was to keep innovating in terms of sound, structure, delivery, lyrics, while still expressing emotions that are human and possibly eternal.  Perhaps the range in which that can be done has been almost filled up.

    5/ You suggest that the download culture has depreciated the value of music. Is there any way back from this? Can it regain its original significance for people when so little effort is required to get it?

I think the problem with the downloading culture is that it has decommodified music, which sounds very anti-capitalistic and “hooray, we’re kicking the corporations in the groin”. But it hasn’t returned music to any kind of “sacred”  or communally ritual function that it might have had before it was commodified as recordings that you bought and used at home privately. It’s the worst of both worlds:  value-less, virtually abject in its sheer overabundance, something to treat very casually, like water from your tap. When it was a commodity there was still the possibility of commodity fetishism, of some kind of desire or mystical investment in the record-as-object.

6/       Is it possible the same fate will befall books?

Possibly, although the sheer length of books and time required to read them agitates against the kind of senseless downloading and hoarding that I write about confessionally in Retromania. With books you know you’ll never get around to reading them, whereas with downloaded music there seems more likelihood.  But certainly with the rise of e-books and reading tablets, there could be a mass traffic in illegally shared books, which would be the ruination of publishing.

   7/   Has music completely lost its rebellious and/or political nature? Can you envisage a powerful movement  like punk or the protest songs of the sixties emerging in the modern world?

One thing that fascinated me with the student protests in the UK in late 2010, and then the street riots in the summer of 2011, and also with the Occupy movement, is you get journalists writing articles asking “where are the protest songs? What is the musical soundtrack for this moment?”. Well perhaps there isn’t going to be one. Maybe music and politics got decoupled at some point. Certainly it’s hard to imagine what songs could add to the current moment. Whereas during the Sixties or postpunk or the early days of hip hop, message songs did seem to have a certain kind of weight and heft.

8/ Finally, having explored the issued in depth, do you fear for the future of something that you obviously care for deeply. Are there things coming down the tracks with the power to startle and maybe even shock us or  should we settle for comfortable, recycled entertainment?

I hear a lot of things every year that are really cool and interesting, and quite a few that are genuinely new and startling. However they tend to be singular occurrences – artists as opposed to genres, and sometimes just particular tracks within a record or oevure – and these artists are also nearly all very marginal in the scheme of things, they operate a long way from the mainstream. There’s no shortage of talent out there, genius levels have not gone down... the problem is the process by which these occurrences gather momentum and become movements, pop cultural events, rifts in History. That used to work during the Analogue era – what people call the monoculture – but the nature of digital culture, which its fragmentation and overproduction, seems to prevent things on the same level as  punk or hip hop or rave from occurring.  

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

an interview with Time of Culture - about "culture-time"

A 2013 interview with Andrzej Marzec for Time of Culture that lays out my thoughts on the topic as they had evolved in the years after the book's publication.

·                    How should we understand the very concept of “retromania”? In which way retro strategy is different from the traditional use of archive? Every epoch somehow relates and refers to the past epochs. What is so distinct, peculiar in this “retromaniac” particular return to the past?

I’m not sure “retromania” is a concept, really.  It’s a word I used a title for the book -  and I settled on it towards the end of the writing process, after having failed to come up with a title I preferred! In the end I think it was the right title, though. I see ‘retromania’ not as a concept or a theory but as an open-ended evocative term for a bunch of phenomena to do with retro, vintage, nostalgia, revivalism, curatorial aesthetics, commemorative culture, collecting, reissuing, etc . These phenomena are related and intermeshed but they also have their own discrete trajectories and specific determinants, and they can each be traced back in history a good way (in some cases several decades, if not longer). But the convergence of these tendencies in the first decade of the 21st Century adds up to a cultural landscape that seems to deserve a term like “retromania”. It’s a good ambivalent word for the overall mood of the culture. For a condition that could be seen as a malaise, but also as something distinctive and defining of our time, with aspects that are exciting and culturally productive.

 “Mania” is suggestive of something out of control, an addiction or obsession, something on the edge of madness. It suggests both craziness and a craze (in the sense of fashion or fad).  But mania also contains the idea of excitement and enthusiasm. And that fits because there are aspects of retro culture that are enjoyable and compelling. Certainly retro’s charms are something that I’m far from immune to.  The book is written from the standpoint of someone who is as prey to retromaniacal tendencies as anyone.  It’s a self-critique as much as critique of anybody else.

Incidentally I discovered recently in my files a piece  I wrote in 1990 that was about reissues and retrospection in rock – it was published by the Guardian newspaper under a different title, but the title I gave it was “Retromania”. So these interrelated phenomena that I call “retromania”, they have been building for a while. And in fact they’ve been a concern of mine almost from the start of my writing (I was doing fanzines from 1984 and writing for Melody Maker from 1986).  But I think they have built to a new intensity since the rise of broadband internet circa 2000, which enabled forms of sharing, collecting, documentation and archiving that are like nothing we could have dreamed of before.  That has definitely added greatly to the manic aspect of retromania – the ease of access to the pop cultural past, the instant-ness and the total recall that’s possible.

But – as you say-- not only have all previous eras of human civilization had particular modes of relating to the past, it’s also true that the anxiety about an excess of history and historical consciousness is not a new thing either. Look at Nietzche’s On the Use and Abuse of History For Life. Reading that, I was surprised to encounter so many pre-echoes of my own doubts and disquiets. That was written in 1873!

2.            Vocalist of the band "The Blouse" in one of her songs sings: "I was in the future yesterday, but now I'm in the past and it keeps taking me back." When we look at contemporary culture, it seems that any way of thinking about the future is already behind us. We rework and use the futuristic vision of the past years (60’-80’), but without any hope for their fulfillment, we don’t want to create our particular versions of future. Is there really no future in front of us now and the only future we can imagine is the one that has failed us and never really happened? Does the future remain in past as a kind of relic?

It does feel like we have somehow gone past the future, and now confront the coming decades without any set of mental images about what life will be like.  Whereas for most of the 20th Century, there were all these pictures and notions of what tomorrow’s world would look, as drastically different from the present.  Buildings would get bigger, planes would get faster, robots would do all the shit jobs. Or think of the electric charge that numerals like "1999" and "2001" seemed to possess. We don't have any such year-dates that shimmer before us with a sense of possibility, strangeness, or even as a benchmark.

This is the shift that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling have been talking about – the fading away of the capital ‘F’  Future and the onset of atemporality, as they call it.  A generation that lives in the digital now.

What was once called the future, and seen as a scenario of promise, or at least of dramatic and spectacular difference from the present (dystopia), now seems like it might look more or less the same as the present. Or may even be significantly worse.  On the one hand, technological advances of certain kinds seem to be proceeding at a good pace (particularly medical and communications/information tech/personal computing), but in other areas like architecture, high speed travel, outer space exploration, there seems to be a standstill.   All those mid-20th Century visions of tomorrow’s world seem corny, yet also induce a pained wistfulness, because they never transpired. Science fiction itself has gone out of fashion, and it has been displaced in terms of youth taste and popular taste by a resurgence of fantasy. Tolkien, not Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke.

3.            It seems that there is something strange with the category of newness, we still desire novelty, but I think we cannot or do not want to create it anymore. Do you think that this concept (newness) is still useful and diagnoses properly phenomena and transformations of contemporary culture? Can you give some examples of completely new developments and trends in contemporary music?

As with “the future” or “futuristic”, the idea of the new lingers, I think, but in a kind of painful way, it’s not completely buried and forgotten but nor does it work like it used to.

Some of what “newness” provided is still provided through the latest increments in digital technology – new games, new apps, new internet stuff.  My son, who is 13, is buzzed up on this and is chasing wanting the latest thing in terms of games, computers, social media, netstuff. But I don’t know if the category of the new or of “progress’ in the cultural-artistic-political senses means anything to him: the idea that things get better. And I know that the science fiction concept that ruled my teenage years – outer space, the very idea of the 21st Century—mean nothing to him.

I can’t think of many really new things in music. Some of the bass sounds in dubstep – the wobble, brostep, Skrillex end of it – seem pretty extreme, if not completely new then a development along on an axis of intensification from things being done in the Nineties. And similarly the use of AutoTune and “vocal science” effect, while building on Nineties techniques, seems to be a growth area – it seems to be a way that musicians indicate contemporaneity and “this is now”. You get that across the board from mainstream pop and rap to underground and experimental music – an interest in vocal weirdness, the denatured and posthuman voice.

4.            Every new beginning is described by the means of the past at first, with a usage of concepts from the perspective of a bygone era. Just to mention that when first TV sets appeared, they were calling them radios with pictures. Do you think that process of describing contemporary culture from the perspective of the past is somehow similar to  interpreting TV set via radio? Putting it simply: is the present time secondary and imitative, or is it the beginning of something new, but we cannot even find the right category to describe this reality?

Well, TV is kind of like radio with pictures, isn’t it? Most of the things TV did and have continued to do – dramas, soap opera serials, news programmes, documentaries, music – are all things radio did, just restricted to the audio dimension.  The unique idiomatic things that TV could do – experimental TV and video in the Seventies, or Eno’s idea of ambient TV that would be more like a picture on your living room wall that something you’d watch – these either remained an obscure, minority art-world function, or never took off at all.

However I do get what you’re talking about – there is a tendency for critics to appraise the new medium using the terms and concepts and metrics of value that apply to a previous medium. So cinema (even now, still -- in mainstream coverage at least) gets assessed in the terms of literature or theatre – plot, acting, characterization, dialogue – and not so much in terms of cinematography, editing, effects (the areas that are proper and unique to the cinematic medium). Everyone knows who the actors and directors are but only your hardcore cineaste theorists know who did the cinematography, lighting, costumes, editing, décor and props, grading, etc.

The same goes for rock criticism, particularly in its early days, --  critics focused on the lyrics or the social meaning, had very little to say about groove or sound. That partly reflected their background as students of humanities, usually English Literature or History or Political Science.  But it also reflected a culture-lag syndrome of the kind you’re talking about.

5.            What do you think about hipster culture, what does it mean for you and how does it influence the condition of contemporary culture? Why does this category function rather as an insult and the object of derision, in fact no one wants to admit that he/she is a hipster? Does the diving for remnants in the dumpster of culture is so shameful or the very concept of a hipster is identified with the lack of any taste and competence?

Hipster, as a phenomenon, is closely bound up with retro, but it’s not identical with it. Retro and vintage is one of the ways hipsters express themselves and accumulate their subcultural capital. But it can also be done through cosmopolitan exoticism – through knowledge of other cultures, usually non-Western and subaltern cultures. So I talk about xenomania as a parallel phenomenon to retromania. Both retro and xeno have existed for decades, but again the internet has intensified both syndromes hugely.  You have hipsters who know about obscure music from the 1960s and 1970s (or increasingly going back before World War 2 to pre-war gospel and blues). But you also have hipsters – often the same hipsters – who are chasing strange new rhythms from the ghettoes of South America or Africa, things they find out about on YouTube. And sometimes you get retroxeno – which is the quest for super-obscure African music  only ever released on cassette in the 1970s, or Ocora field recordings, or New Wave music from the former Soviet Union...

The derision aimed at the hipster comes from an intuition that the process of turning music into semiotic capital, an index of coolness and superior skills at scavenging and hunting for things no one else knows about – that this is voiding the music of its value. The hipster modus operandi is decontextualising the music from the lifeworld where it actually had meaning and social purpose, and turning it into décor for your lifestyle or something that is “costuming the ego”.  Even when it’s driven by a genuine hunger for “the real”, the authentic... which is what it seems to be about in a lot of cases –  it comes out, unavoidably, as inauthentic.

But there’s hardly any of us who escape the taint of hipster... it’s more a sliding scale of tourism and vicariousness.

I sometimes think of myself as a hipster who isn’t good with clothes or hair...   a failed or partial hipster. I can do the music-taste part of hipsterism easily, not the other bits.  But I’m the wrong age group, also. I have too much mental and emotional baggage from a pre-hipster era.  If hipsterism is the voiding of bohemia of any actual dissident cultural value, then I still mostly belong emotionally to a world before that happened.  

6.            Who is a contemporary artist: genius, a curator, a thief, a plagiarist, a follower, or a consumer? You are interested in the concept of recreativity, could you tell me something more about this idea? How attitude towards originality, copying and imitating changes in our times? Are we able nowadays to steal somebody’s ideas or we just simple recreate them?

Recreativity is a term I came up with for a whole set of practices to do with remixing, reenactment, mash ups, parody, and also for the theories that have sprung up to celebrate these practices and to attack ideas of originality and innovation, along with the notion of copyright and intellectual property.  As with retro, there’s been a boom of these practices and their attendant theorizations in the last decade, but they also go back a long way – through appropriation art in the Seventies, back to Pop Art in the Sixties, all the way to the readymade and collage in the early 20th Century.  Not forgetting postmodernism which was in large part all about the rejection of the idea of originality and origins. And just in the context of pop music, there have been debates about sampling and “plunderphonics” and the remix going back to the early Eighties. So in an ironic way, these very 21st Century things like Nicolas Bourriaud’s theories about postproduction art and curatorial aesthetics, or things like the early 2000s fad for mash ups, they are themselves remixes of earlier ideas  or they are extensions of earlier practices of remixing and mashing-up.   They exemplify and perpetuate the very syndromes they identify and celebrate .

To me, the ideas seem exhausted, they feel like the 1980s all over again...  and they are used too often to justify work that is purely a rearrangement of existing elements, with no X Factor of newness. “The new is always old” has become a cliché and a defeatist creed.  I do not understand why people seem to find it a liberating concept, or refreshing.  It’s stale and old - and depressing!

To say that “all artists steal” doesn’t help explain how some artists transform what they steal and actually create the new. Which keeps on happening.

7.            Young generations don’t miss the past usually (they don’t have their own yet), so what is the reason for this overwhelming sense of nostalgia among youth nowadays? Do you perceive it as a sign of contestation, dissatisfaction with the present, disappointment with the future, refusal of its co-creation, anti-capitalist opposition to the production? Or is it simply an expression of laziness and unwillingness to take a risk? We can tell a lot about the past, but this is one of the most secure area we can imagine, nothing there is surprising or unexpected.

I don’t know if it’s nostalgia as such.  Probably there’s different levels and different motivations .  Some young people are fascinated by the past because the archives in their teeming clutter provide a space for exploration, you can discover things in the rubbish heap of history through which you’re sifting, and you can repurpose them. So it’s a form of cultural archaeology that can involve genuine interest in the past but also can be purely a present-minded, use-oriented approach – what can I do now with this old synth, this vintage garment, these bygone style of graphics or typography.  

But then for other young people maybe there is actual longing and yearning directed to these golden ages of music they’ve read about, the attraction is to music that seemed to be connected to history and to social energies in a way that few music today is. So that would be a self-defeating form of nostalgia, because by channeling energy towards music from the past they are by definition disconnecting themselves from history and from current social energies. 

Of course music from the past often has intrinsic qualities and value, in the same way that Shakespeare or Citizen Kane or whatever does.  I don’t have a problem with people listening to classic old music at all, in fact I think they should. It’s when they try to recreate it or to base an entire revivalist lifestyle around that... that’s when it gets problematic.

8.            Why we cannot forget about what is left? In your book you seem to claim that we are doomed to the past because of the improvement of archive technology – collecting data and access to information have never been so easy. If nostalgia is something authentic indeed or is it only facade or decoration and only the modern way of expression, rather form than essence?

It is interesting, and something that I don’t really explore in the book, how the idea of the generation gap has faded – the rejectionist impulse of youth doesn’t seem to apply anymore, in the sense of rejecting their parents’s music. Or in the early hyper-accelerated days of rock, it was rejecting your older brother and sister’s music. Glam fans seized on glam because they wanted their own thing, and the hippie / underground music of just a few years earlier belonged to their older brothers and sisters. Same with punk and New Wave: it created a dividing line in history. It would be many years before I listened to Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd... when I got into music in 1978, you just took it as read that the Old Wave of rock was utterly irrelevant, discredited, and actually devoid of any musical value. 

12.          Would you agree with the statement that titling this book Retromania you are also as the author filled with nostalgia? You quite frequently repeat that modern world is no longer the same as before. For example, today bands refer rather to the entire list of their inspiration ("playing as Joy Division") instead of manifest their differences and emphasize originality, no one is waiting for a new album as much as it happened before and so on. Your longing for the past seems to be rather nostalgia for the past type of albums production (not overproduction), their distribution (not YouTube) and consumption of music (not iPod or shuffle mode). You write about music, albums and bands as if they have lost their aura, uniqueness, inaccessibility and mystery.

I don’t know about that. Personally, I have all kinds of nostalgia for various periods of my life, and periods of culture. But I strongly resist this idea that when you talk about a decline, or a change even, in how culture works, or the nature of music – that this can be simply dismissed as nostalgia.  To point out that things are different in a certain respect, doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to go back.

An example: after punk and New Wave, it is simply undeniable that British rock bands, on average, were less groove-oriented and capable of “feel” than they were in the Sixties and pre-punk early Seventies. This is because of a number of factors:  punk discredited the idea of virtuosity and paying your dues, so that by the time they were getting make records, New Wave bands were less seasoned and tight as performing units; New Wave music had moved away from its grounding in blues and in American musical sources generally.  Now you can say that “feel” and “groove” are old fashioned values, if you want, or you can say that postpunk and New Wave made up for that diminishment through other aspects of the music being radical or exciting or fresh. But just taking that metric of value, it’s undeniable that the drumming in your average British band deteriorates from 1977 onwards and it has continued to deteriorate. (Partly I would say because anyone with a flair for rhythm has been more like to get into electronic dance music and apply to it drum machines, sample-loops, digital audio workstation programming etc). To say that this has happened isn’t nostalgic, it’s pointing to a real and measurable decline along one metric or axis of judgement.

So in terms of what I’m writing about in Retromania, I think the book can be seen as in part a neutral description of changes caused by the transition from an Analogue System to a Digital System.  Parts of the book – the stuff to do with YouTube and with filesharing and MP3s in particular – are a kind of phenomenology of digital life, an anatomy of its sensations and affects. The Analogue System made possible certain kinds of affect and convergence of energy;  these occur much less frequently or much more weakly in the Digital era, if at all. 

But since my expectations of music was shaped by experiencing those affects and living through such convergences of energy: postpunk, rave, etc) you could justifiably view Retromania as a requiem for the Analogue System.  There is an element of mourning the passage of an entire world and the kind of subjectivity shaped by it. The Analogue-era sense of culture-time as linearity and forward propulsion has been displaced by atemporality and a recursive, archival logic.  So the interest is what new convergences and affects are emerging out of this altered sense of time and space?  How will music function in the new order? So far it’s very unclear  --  mostly we are still living inside the wreckage of the Analogue System.  Will pop music have the privileged status it had or has it become just one zone or componenent with the entertainment landscape? The sense is that the old power and function that music had has decisively gone but we don’t know yet what powers and functions it will have.

13.          I know that you are planning a new book. What comes after retro and what will be the subject of your research this time? Will it be another come back of the past and you will continue threads started in Retromania or you will focus on completely new territory?

I had so many ideas after Retromania came out, through doing so many interviews and public appearances, but also just thinking further on the subject, responding both publicly and mentally - in my own head - to critiques of the book, etc, that I could easily write another book on the subject. There’s lots of things I should have said, and I can see ways of making the argument clearer and more far reaching - and inarguable! But I think it’s time to move on to a new subject.  The next book is partly historical and partly about the present: its main subject is glam rock, but I’m going to be connecting that to contemporary pop culture and looking at things like stardom -  fame as a cultural pathology.